The year is 1952. The revolution that will radically transform Japanese animation into what we know today is taking place ten thousand kilometers away, in France. French poet Jacques Prévert has written the screenplay for the influential surrealist animated film La Bergère et le Ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep), directed by Paul Grimault, arguably one of the most important figures in the history of European animation. A few years later, on the other side of the world, a young French literature university student can’t believe his eyes and is astonished by the possibilities of the animated medium after watching said film. At the end of his studies, this young man, who still didn’t know how to draw, decided to put his nose to the grindstone in order to devote himself professionally to animation. That young man’s name was Isao Takahata (1935-2018), and over the following decades, he’d dedicate himself to turning the animation world upside down, come what may.
Over, and over again.
Worldwide fame came to him with the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka, 1988) and more recently, the sublime and extraordinary The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya hime no monogatari, 2013). Respectively, his first and last film with Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he co-founded with director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki. For much of the general audience, Miyazaki remains synonymous with the legendary studio, in addition to his unforgettable filmography and worldwide commercial success. But none of this would have been possible without Takahata’s artistic genius.
Isao Takahata’s legacy in current animation
Morally ambiguous characters and adult narratives departing from black-and-white stories are some of the features that set anime apart from its western counterpart, still mostly constrained by the allergy to shades of grey and limited to child audiences. Japanese paradigm would have followed a similar path if in 1968 a young and rebellious Takahata hadn’t disrupted the playing field with his directorial debut at Toei Animation for The Adventures of Horus, Prince of the Sun. A fresh and daring tale, inspired by Ainu folk tales, about a hero’s struggle against a demon that threatens the destruction of his village. Behind this seemingly simple premise was a complex (anti)heroine and a strong social message in keeping with the political turbulence of the time, as well as bold cinematography in various action sequences. Boldness that Toei, only interested in children’s products at the time, was punished with a premature withdrawal of the film less than two weeks after its premiere. The ensuing commercial failure was only compensated by a roaring critical acclaim and subsequent consensus on the seminal character that this film would have on later generations of animators.
If we consider Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) the father of Japanese animation, we would as well consider Takahata the mentor who pushed it to maturity and elevated it to art status. In Grave of the Fireflies, the filmmaker in 1988 once again turned existing conventions on their head, presenting, in the words of noted film critic Roger Ebert, “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” Around the world, audiences were enthralled by the animated adaptation of writer Akiyuki Nosaka’s (1930-2015) semi-autobiographical novel, centered on the horrors experienced by two siblings in Kobe during World War II’s final months. A kind of film that, until then, very few would have been able to conceive within the field of animation for its psychological depth and aesthetic complexity.
Many people asked why I started this project. “No one would see the film,” they reasoned, and I understood what they meant. However, I thought it was meaningful. I believed this type of project had a place in the animated genre. And people actually believed in it. I feel I had broadened the horizon of animated films, and in this sense, it’s one of the most important works I’ve done.Werenko, Tim, director. Isao Takahata on “Grave of the Fireflies”. Central Park Media Corporation, 2002
Not content with that, three years later Takahata made history again with Only Yesterday (Omoide poro poro, 1991), a serene and intimate drama about the tribulations of a young Tokyo office worker who dreams of changing the course of her life and leaving the city for rural life in Yamagata Prefecture. A project that fell into his hands after Miyazaki didn’t know what to do with it. Based on the homonymous manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, the original material consisted of a series of vignettes showing brushstroke fragments of the protagonist’s life in the 1960s.
A disjointed material with a narrative difficult to weave, Takahata enriched it by inventing the figure of that same protagonist as an adult and placing the narrative fragments as melancholic remembrances of a bittersweet past. The resulting film was a smash hit at the box office, demonstrating once again the animated medium’s ability to portray deeply introspective, adult drama that can only be understood from the experience of maturity.
Pampered and carefully crafted unruly and strong female characters, a Studio Ghibli trademark, was already a constant in his work as a director since before the studio founding. The unforgettable series Heidi, The Girl From The Alps (1974), inspired by Johanna Spyri’s novel, presented us with a sweet protagonist determined not to be intimidated by the difficulties of adapting to a rigid environment after being uprooted from her bucolic mountain village. Anne of Green Gables (1979), a faithful adaptation of Lucy M. Montgomery’s novel, follows the adventures and misadventures of a young orphan adopted by mistake who manages to conquer everyone’s hearts around her without giving up her own nature. Chie The Brat (1981) displays a mischievous and cunning street heroine starring in a lighthearted tribute to the underclass, based on Etsumi Haruki’s manga.
The influence of the avant-garde and European cinema
In Takahata’s innovative and iconoclastic tendencies, it’s impossible to ignore the defining traits of Italian Neorealism or the Nouvelle Vague through their realistic themes with a strong component of social protest, as we have observed in all the aforementioned titles. His degree in French Literature from the University of Tokyo, completely unrelated to the animation discipline, is one of the reasons he and his entourage used to cite when explaining his originality when approaching the methodology of the animation process. He never drew anything beyond initial sketches for storyboards.
It was his studies that exposed him to the intellectual and artistic currents in France and Europe at the time, intellectual values that would continue to dictate his wild creative drive and political views throughout his career. After all, the film that lit the fuse told the story of a popular uprising against the authoritarian rule of a cross-eyed and despotic king.
Isao Takahata’s experimentation with the expressive limits of the animated medium
Each of his productions is a small revolution in itself. Grave of the Fireflies not only cemented the possibilities of an adult narrative, but it also did so with unprecedented aesthetic refinement. The potential of the animated medium to fuse the real and the metaphorical manages to create forms of expression that transcend the possibilities of the physical. The careful aesthetic composition of terrifying scenes such as the city bombing or the brief idyllic moments shared by the siblings is the animation vehicle to represent the subjective and emotional perception of the person. The plasticity of expressions or the space-time manipulation to emphasize key moments are resources that wouldn’t work in the same way in real settings with flesh and blood actors.
With Only Yesterday, the capacity to stir emotions with the simplicity of everyday life is also manifested in the representation of reality compared to memory. Contemporary scenes are vibrant and exquisitely detailed while flashbacks are rendered in a desaturated color palette with sketchy backgrounds, depicting the contrast between our current reality and our often vague and fuzzy memories. We thus have a window to the protagonist’s inner world, who at 27 years of age meditates in solitude about an existential emptiness that can’t be defined with words, while we observe the snippets of the childhood of a rebellious soul that knows itself to be different and unable to adapt to a corseted society’s expectations. And what we see shakes us to our core: Takahata mercilessly forces us to be uncomfortable of how the protagonist has been broken little by little from the inside.
On the other hand, Pompoko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, 1994) resorts to the fantastic and seemingly innocent to convey a bitter environmentalist plea. A tanuki tribe, Japanese folklore’s adorable and popular supernatural creatures, fight tooth and nail against the irreparable destruction of the mountains and forests that they call home. The humorous scenes and the illusionist tricks of the furry protagonists are red herrings to disguise as a light comedy a tragic tale about vulnerability, the pain of loss, and the impossibility of avoiding change. Takahata catches us off guard and forces us in front of the mirror to depict us, humans, as the greatest antagonists in history, architects of uncontrolled destruction under the guise of urban progress.
The power of the extraordinary in the mundane
In My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) he broke the mold again, this time at his own studio. He made a completely digital animated film where the paradigm of hand-drawn animation had reigned supreme up to that point. Ironically, it was the one film that seemed the most artisanal to date, with freestyle brush strokes and a minimalist look more typical of a sketch.
With a narrative style reminiscent of Only Yesterday, he opens a window into the daily trials of a typical Japanese family, through a series of vignettes that talk about the ups and downs of marriage, school vicissitudes, and the challenges of moving from childhood to youth and maturity. An equally tender, serious, and lighthearted portrait from which profound reflections on daily life can be derived. Metaphors, visual jokes, and groundbreaking aesthetics didn’t spare it from commercial failure, despite absolute critical acclaim. But it was the necessary prelude to what would be his masterpiece.
With The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Takahata catapulted animated language’s artistic level to its zenith. The techniques used in his previous work served to synthesize his diverse aesthetic references with styles inspired by ancient scrolls or illustrations. Minimalist backgrounds with delicate strokes in watercolor tones, irregular lines more typical of a sketch than a finished illustration, those elements stimulate the audience to flee from uniformity and enrich their own experience through imagination. The story is adapted from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori Monogatari), a late 9th or early 10th-century Japanese folktale about an elderly couple blessed by a celestial princess whom they raise as their own daughter.
The exaltation of beauty in everyday life is depicted through the touching story of this sacred creature who experiences for the first time in her flesh the joys and sorrows of mortal and earthly life. And in every scene, we accompany the protagonist in her delight in the majesty of the landscape, the flora and fauna, and the changing seasons, which are depicted in such a way that practically every frame is worthy of being framed and hung in our walls. In parallel, the direct critique of traditional social structures in Takahata’s adaptation overlaps with the exploration of a vast inner world of emotions and lost longings. The film gives Ghiblinesque overtones to the heroine: a young woman who rejects what is expected of her, for whom palace luxuries are nothing compared to the freedom and simple happiness of her family life in her mountain cabin amidst bamboo forests.
But Takahata is no Disney and the long-awaited happy ending isn’t such. Kaguya’s urge to flee crashes against her golden cage’s reality and the end of her ordeal only appears when she is forced to abandon her beloved earthly existence to return to the moon with her people. A final scene filled with the visual pyrotechnics of a celestial parade, which, however, is brimming with sadness, regret, and resignation. A monumental work that would ultimately be the master’s farewell before his passing in April 2018. A chaotic production that was reflected in the documentary Isao Takahata and his story of The Princess Kaguya, a must-see to peek into the complex creative process that made possible, in yours truly’s humble opinion, the most beautiful animated film ever produced.
As a whole, Isao Takahata’s filmography is a transformative experience. A dark and harrowing introspection that contrasts and complements Hayao Miyazaki’s gentle and spectacular escapism. This may partly explain why, for the general audience, the former’s name still lives in the shadow of the latter. In each of his works, Takahata mercilessly pushes us on a roller coaster of emotions that embodies, with the utmost audacity and to its last consequences, Studio Ghibli’s founding principles of prioritizing art over commercial values.